Happy 94th birthday to the Prince of Darkness, Miles Davis! It wasn’t hard to pick an album for today’s post—‘Sorcerer’ has been in heavy rotation for the last couple of weeks. My deep appreciation (bordering on obsession) with the Second Great Quintet is no secret, and each of the six albums they released between 1965–1968 is a gift that keeps on giving. ‘Sorcerer’ from 1967 is a middle child and one that some of my jazz pals rank slightly lower than the others. As everyone is entitled to their opinion, *MY* belief is that those pals should pull the cotton out of their ears, open their minds, and listen again. They view the lack of compositions from Miles and the perception that “he doesn’t play enough” on ‘Sorcerer’ as a reason to criticize. Opinions vary—I see this as one of the most significant examples of Miles’ drive towards “letting go” and making this a team effort. After all, hiring a band half his age as a catalyst towards pushing himself to be better was one of his core strategies, and there’s a lesson in that for us all. Besides, how do you argue with the nocturnal, brooding “Prince of Darkness,” which worms its way into your soul like a spirit that’s equally sinister and benevolent? How does one not sit in awe of the mighty “Masqualero,” a sprawling composition of enigmatic, interlocking complexity that remained a part of Miles’ live book for years? Plus, I just love the note in “Masqualero” at around 4:21 that Wayne Shorter coaxes into existence—you can hear him putting the breath of life into it with such thought and deliberation, and it’s just, exactly, perfect. It’s one of my favorite moments in jazz. In textbook Second Great Quintet fashion, the group excels at defying rhythmic conventions, but the pulse throughout is healthy if you’re willing to invest the time in finding it. Pulse leads to the heartbeat, and that’s ultimately where this and all of Miles’ music is rooted—in the heart. The cerebral “music as contact sport” fun of the Second Great Quintet is one reason I love listening to it so much, but equally important is how often this music gives me the feels. Mad respect and appreciation to birthday boy @milesdavis today
I was saddened to hear that drummer Jimmy Cobb has flown from the world on Sunday at age 91. Many are rightly posting about his legendary contributions to ‘Kind of Blue,’ and he was the last surviving member of the group that brought that game-changing record to life. Mad respect! That rhythm section—Cobb on drums, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianist Wynton Kelly—made contributions to plenty of other top-shelf jazz records, like Art Pepper’s ‘Gettin Together,’ and this bad boy with Wes Montgomery, ‘Smokin at the Half Note.’ There’s incredible chemistry here between Montgomery and this rhythm section, and you can hear his confidence in their ability to change their state of matter effortlessly: solid groove, liquid solos, and high speed interplay that floats like hydrogen. RIP Jimmy Cobb, and thanks for all the music. You’ve left an amazing legacy for so many to enjoy
Woody Shaw is my favorite trumpet player, and I’m also blown away by his skills as an arranger, composer and bandleader. This was one of his final recordings, a live album recorded in Switzerland in February of 1987. Shaw leads a quartet featuring Fred Henke (piano), Neil Swainson (bass), and Alexander Deutsch (drums) through a program that’s leans heavily on ballads, though Shaw’s playing does get fiery, particularly on “Sippin’ at Bells”. Henke’s “The Dragon” also has killer solos, as does the bonus track on the CD/digital version of the record, which is the Shaw original “Joshua C.” The entire record is a showcase for Shaw’s tone, phrasing, and mastery of dynamics—as the sole horn player, a lot of the heavy lifting falls upon him and he delivers with style, fluidity, passion, and power at every opportunity. This is a record that doesn’t often get brought up in conversations about Shaw’s best work, and it should. There’s no shortage of live Woody Shaw records to choose from, and I’d list this as one of the top three. That said, I cannot recommend the vinyl edition which sounds rather thin. The CD/digital versions sound much more robust, and give you a better “you are THERE” vibe. Additionally, the CD/digital bonus track “Joshua C” really completes the set. This is an exquisite performance, and a must for Woody Shaw fans
‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ captures a compelling snapshot in time in the perpetual motion machine that was the artistry of Miles Davis. By early 1963, several of Miles’ frequent musical collaborators had moved on, and he was in search of a new team to bring his next set of innovations to life. First, Miles headed west, with two days of sessions in Hollywood leading a quartet backed by Victor Feldman-piano, Ron Carter-bass, and Frank Butler-drums. These ballads (1,3, and 5 on the LP) feature heart-wrenching solos by Miles, and Ron Carter’s bass playing on the album opener “Basin Street Blues” should be enshrined in a bass Hall of Fame somewhere. Miles returned to New York the following month, and those tracks—2, 4, and 6 on the LP, recorded on this day 14 May 1963—are more uptempo. The NYC band is a nascent Second Great Quintet: George Coleman-tenor sax, Ron Carter-bass, Herbie Hancock-piano, and Tony Williams-drums. Williams—only 17 at the time—had just been poached from Jackie McLean’s group, where he’d made quite the impression on McLean’s inside/outside ‘One Step Beyond.’ Williams’ playing was charged, pushing everyone to go the extra mile. Clearly, the chemical reaction between Williams, Carter, and Hancock was what Miles was looking for, and so began a year or so of live dates where this quintet would take the standards in the classic Miles live book to tempos and variations that pushed the boundaries further and further, culminating in Coleman’s departure and Wayne Shorter’s arrival in 1964. While it’s tempting to slot SSTH as a “middle child” between the great quintets, it stands proudly on its own merits. Three superb ballads, a killer title track, and the Victor Feldman original “Joshua” (which Davis would keep in his live book for almost a decade, though interestingly Feldman does not play on the track here) are more than enough to make this a classic
The Miles Davis Quintet recorded four albums of material over two dates in 1956, one of which was today, 11 May. All four are essential snapshots of one of the most important small combo jazz groups of their era who helped define the hard-bop sound. Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’, & Steamin’ With all feature John Coltrane-tenor sax, Red Garland-piano, Paul Chambers-Bass and Philly Joe Jones-drums. Personally, I tend to get obsessed with the @milesdavis Second Great Quintet, but when I go back to these records I’m always reminded of how freakin’ amazing they are. For example, take a good listen to the opening ballad from this LP “It Never Entered My Mind”, a Rogers & Hart tune that Miles had previously done a couple of years earlier with Horace Silver. The performance here is transcendent—if it doesn’t give you all the feels, check yourself for a pulse. Seriously. This track is all about Miles, Red Garland and Paul Chambers. John Coltrane plays only two notes, and both of them are PERFECT. “It Never Entered My Mind” could be my answer to questions like “Why jazz?” Or “Why Miles?” Or “What do you mean by ‘feel’ in music?” and still it’s just the tip of the iceberg. All four of these Miles Prestige albums belong in your library, whether as individual LP titles or through the excellent @craftrecordings collection which presents them in a single boxed collection, chronologically. The 26 tracks recorded over these two dates were all first takes, and represent Miles leaving Prestige on a high note, prepped to join Columbia Records to level up and take things even further
I don’t know Mr. Carter personally, but from what I know *OF* him, he’d probably cringe if I used the expression “living legend,” so I’m not going to do that, even though he deserves it. I will wish him a happy 83rd birthday and many happy returns of the day. I could have shown any number of his records in celebration– after all, he’s the most recorded bassist in jazz history, having played on over 2,200 sessions. He’s also a multiple Grammy winner, a multi-decade professor with a strong dedication to music education at various universities, an actor, composer, and author. I spun this LP earlier and enjoyed the title track in particular. Carter’s approach is so confident, and you can’t help but feel that he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing and that even if the situation changes, he’ll roll with Plan B, turning on a dime in an equally confident, relaxed, steady manner. This “Tao of Ron Carter” actually seems like a pretty good approach to life in general!
It’s hard to pick a favorite Ron Carter moment amongst so much great music, though I often turn to this ‘All Blues’ record (CTI 1973), his work on Andrew Hill’s ‘Passing Ships,’ the track “Basin Street Blues” from ‘Seven Steps to Heaven,’ and of course his famous bass line on “Footprints” from ‘Miles Smiles’. “Footprints” in particular gets me every time, as he and drummer Tony Williams toss 12/8 and 4/4 time back and forth with both muscle and magic. I never tire of listening to it, and though I’m not a bass player, I understand why bassists have been studying it—and arguing over exactly what he’s actually playing/doing—for over five decades. It’s amazing.
More power to you, Ron
Night—with all of its mysterious energy and unsettled calm—is beautifully realized by Wayne Shorter on his Blue Note debut, ’Night Dreamer.’ It all comes together—the overall vibe of the music, the compositions (all by Shorter), the artwork, and the stellar playing of the quintet which featured Lee Morgan (trumpet), McCoy Tyner (piano), Reggie Workman (bass) & Elvin Jones (drums). Even the album title ’Night Dreamer’ was evocative and perfect. This album was one of several remarkable beginnings for Shorter that year—he’d soon be a key part of next Big Bang, the formation of the @milesdavis Second Great Quintet. And it was a busy year for Shorter he also recorded ‘Indestructible’ and ‘Free For All’ with Art Blakey and ’Search For the New Land’ with Lee Morgan. I like taking the entire album in as I think it’s particularly well-sequenced and works best as a whole. If I had to choose highlights, ‘Virgo,’ the ballad that closes Side A is GORGEOUS. Wayne Shorter’s solo is wonderful, and the rhythm section is remarkable. Another highlight is “Armageddon.” While the title might suggest a mood of anger, chaos, or explosive energy, the vibe is more contemplative. There’s a quiet urgency and an unsettling undercurrent that keeps the atmosphere slightly charged—it’s extraordinary. This session was recorded on this day, 29 April, 1964. Shorter would only level up from here. This Music Matters 33 pressing is a joy
Incendiary. Recorded on this day (7 April, 1970) in Columbia Studio B, this record moves even further into rock, soul, and funk excursions that began as far back as the waning days of the Second Great Quintet. Those initial sparks grew into a flame with ‘In A Silent Way,’ fire with ‘Bitches Brew,’ and full-on conflagration with ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson.’ Miles, in particular, is playing at the top of his game—his solos are fierce, edgy, and take NO prisoners whatsoever. As a bandleader, his stated goal was to “put together the greatest rock ’n’ roll band you ever heard.” Mission accomplished: John McLaughlin & Sonny Sharrock (guitars), Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea (keyboards), Steve Grossman (saxophone), Bennie Maupin (bass clarinet), Dave Holland & Michael Henderson (bass), and Billy Cobham & Jack DeJohnette (drums). The two side-long tracks cover a lot of ground. Tension. Release. Tranquility. Fury. The lines between what was planned and what happened are difficult to ascertain, and ultimately I’m not sure it matters. Whether you see this is a rock record with jazz cred or a jazz record that decided to party with a rock band, it’s another example of bending the course of music to his will. And we’re all the better for it
Whether Jackie McLean was deliberately taking a page out of the playbook by surrounding himself with a group of uber-talented, younger players to push his capabilities, or whether he was simply looking to build a band he felt best able to blow the doors off the studio; mission accomplished. ‘New York Calling’ is perhaps McLean’s best record of the 1970s. ‘New York Calling’—recorded and released in the Fall of 1974–grooves effortlessly between modal and advanced hard-bop, with occasional nods to the inside/outside influences that made McLean’s 60s albums like ‘Destination…Out!’ and ‘One Step Beyond’ so compelling. Those are fleeting sonic glimpses at best, though, and the majority of this record is pretty melodic, though still cerebral enough to satisfy more adventurous ears. McLean, who’d recently returned from a few years in Europe, sounds energized and engaged throughout, getting gold stars for both playing and band leadership. But the heroes of this session are pianist Billy Gault and trumpeter/arranger Billy Skinner who between them composed all five tracks on this beast of a record. The tunes are all interesting, the arrangements clever, and the requisite musicianship is first class. Bassist James Benjamin and drummer Michael Carvin keep things tight but loose, while Jackie and his son Rene (tenor/soprano sax) just WAIL. Even on the more mid and downtempo tunes such as “Star Dancer,” there’s a quiet intensity of fire & brimstone, and the acerbic, trademark sharp tone that reminds you that you’re listening to Jackie McLean. This one’s relatively easy to find in the bins, and available across all digital platforms (though missing a track on Tidal for some reason). Good listen! Originally issued on Steeplechase SCS-1023, this is a US pressing on Inner City Records IC-2023
There is no other record in the catalog that’s been the source of as many blown minds and blown speakers as ‘Bitches Brew.’ The only constant about Miles Davis over the years was his refusal to be a constant. While his compass had pointed in a new direction for a couple of records, ‘Bitches Brew’ was a Big Bang. It gave birth to entire genres, methods of working with tape edits, and leveraging the recording studio as an instrument itself. The unhinged electricity and unapologetic rock grooves set the jazz world on its ear. Those critics and fans who cried foul and shouted for the bell-bottomed, amplified, hippies to get off their lawns and bring back the tuxedoed guys “who knew how to swing” were frustrated at their inability to adjust their ears. Miles knew that time and life didn’t sit still, and that being liked wasn’t as important as saying what needed to be said. His uncanny knack for changing the times, and writing a new soundtrack to accompany them didn’t include a clause for traditionalism. The experiment paid off—fifty years later, ‘Bitches Brew’ continues to influence, provoke, polarize, inspire, and delight. Don’t worry if you don’t get it on your first listen. Or second. Or even your fifth. Nothing that’s this worthwhile was ever achieved suddenly. Happy 50th ‘Bitches Brew